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Good As Gold?

I was reminded of the old saying, "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it." When I started working on this story, I remember thinking, "If I had $35,000 worth of clubs in my bag, I would be afraid to turn my back on them for an instant. And God forbid I hit one fat." I shuddered at the thought. But Chris Lannom told me I had it all wrong. "I don't have any idea what your income is, Eric," he said, "but the people who buy Honma are not concerned about these issues."

I felt like a rube. Lannom, perhaps sensing that, added, "I have those same feelings." Last year he played the TM-202 irons with steel shafts because he liked the heavier feel, but he also usually carries a couple of five-star clubs, "mostly to have them in the bag so people can look at them." He said he used to play five-star irons.

"And, yes," he admitted, "if I weren't at my home course and had to take a leak, I would probably be kind of nervous and would rush back from the rest room a little quicker than necessary."

Back in Japan, recent business downturns have cut into Honma's domestic sales, forcing the company to sell off one of the two golf courses it owned and to close forty-five of its 120 wholly owned Honma retail shops. Worse, the company, which went public in 1995, has been tarred by scandal. In 2001, Yukihiro Honma, Hiro's younger brother, stepped down as president after the company was forced to pay 120 million yen ($1.2 million) in previously undeclared consumption taxes. According to a 2001 report in the Japan Times, Tokyo police found that Honma Golf had evaded the domestic tax by manipulating checks to make it appear as if goods sold in Japan were sold to foreign buyers. In another blow, a former Honma retail store manager was charged with helping South Koreans smuggle clubs into their country in ship containers marked "lead waste." An industry source also told me that the company is now in receivership. A spokesman in Japan acknowledged in an e-mail that "guides" from Honma's trustee bank have been sent to Sakata to "observe how we are operating" but denied that the company is in any form of bankruptcy.

Whatever the situation, Hiro Honma, now sixty-seven years old with a headful of dyed black hair, remains chairman and also apparently head of research and development. And without question, the Honma mystique lives on. Rumor has it, for example, that Honma bought the propeller from the original Queen Mary and melted it down into commemorative clubheads. Lannom assures me there's no truth to the story, but the rumor's persistence reveals the magic of the brand. So does the juicy speculation that the three-iron Jack Nicholson wielded in 1994 to smash the windshield of a car that cut him off was a Honma.

Stateside, Lannom's business continues to grow, and he plans to move into much larger quarters before the end of the year. "I haven't had to sell Honma," he says. "With people who know what Honma is, you just put it in their hands and let them make their own decision."

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